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Pakistani Taliban faction welcomes new Al-Qaeda branch

A new breakaway faction of the Pakistani Taliban on Friday (Sep 5) welcomed Al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri's announcement of the launch of a South Asian branch of the terror network.

ISLAMABAD: A new breakaway faction of the Pakistani Taliban on Friday (Sep 5) welcomed Al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri's announcement of the launch of a South Asian branch of the terror network.

Zawahiri announced the new "Al-Qaeda in the subcontinent" operation in a video message, saying it would take the fight to Myanmar, Bangladesh and India, which has a large but traditionally moderate Muslim population. Indian authorities said they were taking the move seriously and put several states on high alert on Thursday.

Ehsanullah Ehsan, spokesman for the new Pakistani Taliban bloc, named Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) Jamat-ul-Ahrar, hailed Zawahiri's call. "We welcome the new announcement of the subcontinent branch of Al-Qaeda. We believe that the branch will work hard for the achievement of the rights of Muslims in the subcontinent," Ehsan said in a message posted on Twitter and Facebook. Ehsan said rights of Muslims in the region could only be achieved through Islamic sharia law and the establishment of a caliphate.

Asim Umar, the head of the newly-created South Asia branch of Al-Qaeda, is a Pakistani ideologue who has produced a number of online calls to jihad but has a relatively low profile. Umar has appeared wearing a black turban and beard in several online videos produced by Al-Qaeda and the TTP.

The TTP is now effectively divided into two factions, one headed by Maulana Fazlullah, who was elected last November following the killing of ex-chief Hakimullah Mehsud in a US drone strike. The breakaway Jamat-ul-Ahrar (freedom fighters group) group announced its split on Thursday and named Omar Khalid Khorasani as its commander.

Khorasani previously led a faction called Ahrar-ul-Hind, which claimed several attacks during a ceasefire period between the government and Taliban earlier this year, including one on an Islamabad court complex that killed 12 people. Analysts believe Khorasani has strong links to Al-Qaeda and Zawahiri.

The Pakistani military has been waging a major assault on TTP bases in North Waziristan tribal area since mid-June and says it has crippled the militants' command and control structure. The TTP, a loose coalition of different militant outfits, was riven by infighting in the months leading up to the military operation.

In May, a faction of the Mehsud tribe cut ties with the TTP. The Mehsuds were widely seen as the most important group in the TTP and their loss was regarded as a major blow. In response to yesterday's Al-Qaeda announcement, a foreign ministry spokesman said: "Pakistan has taken very resolute action against Al-Qaeda and its remnants. Our military operation against terrorists is still going on. It is all inclusive and across the board." 

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